Monday, 15 December 2014

Quantum mechanics and becoming a writer : by Miriam Halahmy


I grew up in a house which lived and breathed mathematics. I was quick at numbers and happy with algebra as it contained letters and therefore writing. But maths was not my strength so it was nigh on impossible to participate in the family past time.
We lived in Hayes, Middlesex, in a small house, in an ordinary street. But inside our house, extraordinary stuff was going on.
I went back to visit this year and in the photo you can just see my old bedroom window, jutting out above the lawn behind me.

My older brother  and my father sat at the dinner table every night and talked maths for hours. I was reading on the floor in front of the fire. Words filtered down to me  - quantum mechanics, relativity, theorems ( I liked Pythagoras - history was my passion including history of maths), calculus, the atom, the splitting of the atom, anything really to do with the atom.


Then there were all the people - men really - Einstein, Newton, Archimedes - lots of history there. So without really understanding the maths, I was growing up in a home which would give me a backdrop to feed my imagination, my vocabulary, my world view and my thirst for knowledge. This has never left me and I believe it has been a huge influence on my writing.

Fast forward to 2007. My younger brother, Louis Berk, a keen amateur photographer,( who was much better at maths than me) tells me that we should visit Bletchley Park before it gets properly discovered. Louis reckons our Dad was receiving decoded messages from Bletchley when he drove his radio car around France after D-Day. For quite sometime he was the only link between the British and American lines and got a letter from Eisenhower. I think he's wearing his driving gloves in the photo. He never took a driving test. Just got told to drive round the parade ground until he got the hang of it and then off he went.


One of Dad's hobbies was designing circuits and after he died we framed one and hung it on the wall. He drew the circuits with pencils he sharpened with a Stanley knife. He loved sharpening pencils and I always had a box full of fiercely sharpened pencils for school every day. No wonder I became a writer!



Louis was absolutely right. Bletchley Park was practically empty. We wandered around the huts which looked like the code breakers had literally just walked out the door and took photos. It was like stepping back seventy years. These photos were taken by Louis.







These photos were taken by me - you can see the difference!







I was inspired to write this post after seeing the film The Imitation Game about the work of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, cracking the German code and shortening the WW2 by two years. They saved 14 million lives. But everyone who worked there stayed silent for decades. This film is about mathematics at its most extreme.

I loved every minute of it. I had learnt at my father's knee, you don't have to know about maths to be inspired by it. My imagination might not have solved black holes but it can soar as far as I need it to and beyond. Growing up in quantum mechanics - what gorgeous words - taught me how to think outside the box and that's what every writer needs.


www.miriamhalahmy.com

13 comments:

Emma Barnes said...
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Emma Barnes said...
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Joan Lennon said...

A house most not ordinary! I have friends who are accomplished mathematicians and it's true - you don't have to know about maths to be inspired by it! Thanks for posting -

Emma Barnes said...

I love this post, Miriam. I think it's sad how often writers and other literary types make it a point of pride to be disinterested or ignorant of maths and science - as if there should be no point of contact between these different kinds of knowledge.

I think Alan Turing and Bletchley Park are important things for children/young people to know about for many reasons - Alan Turing crops up in adult fiction, and this new film, but I don't know if there anything in children's fiction. Maybe you would be the person to write something?!

Lindsay said...

What a lovely post, Miriam. Really interesting. I haven't seen the film (yet)but intend to. I read a book about Enigma and found it fascinating. I love the pic of your dad.

Anonymous said...

That brought back some memories. I was also isolated from all that Maths talk which is why you and I probably spent more time playing together than you me and Tony. Oddly enough I suddenly became interested in Maths at University and even spent a summer working for the Treasury as as statistician programming statistical forecasting models on ancient mainframes. Is that me with you, and Mum and Dad? Louis

Miriam Halahmy said...

Hi Louis - yes, it was at the holiday camp on Hayling I believe but have no idea where Tony was - unless he took the photo. Interesting to get your perspective too on all that Maths. Mum felt left out too. They were just on another planet I guess. But it definitely filtered down to us - and hey - look at you, LSE graduate!! xx

C.J.Busby said...

Lovely post! I am very fond of algebra myself, and started out studying physics at university but after a while it just hurt my head too much. Was strongly reminded of that feeling watching Jim Al-khalili's documentary on quantum mechanics last week (it was very good!)

caroljchristie said...

I always liked maths, though I was never as good at it as I would have liked. To me algebra always seemed very like sentences. One of the many joys of having a teenager in the house, is that I'm having fun re-learning maths I'd forgotten as my daughter encounters it for the first time. We've had some great chats around the dinner table as we each race to solve a homework problem.

Stroppy Author said...

Good to see something in praise of maths for once! I get so frustrated by the faux-pride of people who can't/won't understand it and wear that as a badge of honour. As if we would be proud of not being able to read - it's absurd!

Emma - I don't know of any fiction for children featuring Turing. But why would it have to be fiction? I have written an autobiography of him for children, but the publisher went bust before it came out. I keep thinking I might put it out as a ebook but I'd need to sort the licence for the illustrations so keep putting it off until I'm not busy (=dead, probably).

Emma Barnes said...
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Emma Barnes said...

Stroppy, go for it! And now surely is the time...

I only said fiction because I assumed that there must already be non-fiction, but maybe that was wrong...

Miriam Halahmy said...

My older brother has left me an interesting comment about this blog. This is what he says :-

Just read your blog, Miriam. I'm pretty certain I took that picture of you all either on my box brownie or Dad's old 35mm.
That circuit was a distribution box for various audio devices and used our beloved multiple wafer switches which we used to buy from army surplus shops in Soho from time to time.
Interestingly, the film of Turing was based on a biography written by Andrew Hodges. Andrew and I were colleagues studying for our PhDs at Oxford under the same supervisor in the 70's. We all, as mathematicians, studied Turing's (and others') mathematical logic formalism.
Our supervisor was Sir Roger Penrose. The subject: Relativity and, of course, Quantum mechanics ( or quantum field theory to be exact). All very symmetrical, really.
T x